After twenty years of cyber – still unchartered territory ahead

The general notion is that much of the core understanding in cyber is in place. I would like to challenge that perception. There are still vast territories of the cyber domain that need to be researched, structured, and understood. I would like to use Winston Churchill’s words – it is not the beginning of the end; it is maybe the end of the beginning. It is obvious to me, in my personal opinion, that the cyber journey is still very early, the cyber field has yet to mature and big building blocks for the future cyber environment are not in place. Internet and the networks that support the net have increased dramatically over the last decade. Even if the growth of cyber might be stunning, the actual advances are not as impressive.

In the last 20 years, cyber defense, and cyber as a research discipline, have grown from almost nothing to major national concerns and the recipient of major resources. In the winter of 1996-1997, there were four references to cyber defense in the search engine of that day: AltaVista. Today, there are about 2 million references in Google. Knowledge of cyber has not developed at the same rapid rate as the interest, concern, and resources.

The cyber realm is still struggling with basic challenges such as attribution. Traditional topics in political science and international relations — such as deterrence, sovereignty, borders, the threshold for war, and norms in cyberspace — are still under development and discussion. From a military standpoint, there is still a debate about what cyber deterrence would look like, what the actual terrain and maneuverability are like in cyberspace, and who is a cyber combatant.

The traditional combatant problem becomes even more complicated because the clear majority of the networks and infrastructure that could be engaged in potential cyber conflicts are civilian — and the people who run these networks are civilians. Add to that mix the future reality with cyber: fighting a conflict at machine speed and with limited human interaction.

Cyber raises numerous questions, especially for national and defense leadership, due to the nature of cyber. There are benefits with cyber – it can be used as a softer policy option with a global reach that does not require predisposition or weeks of getting assets in the right place for action. The problem occurs when you reverse the global reach, and an asymmetric fight occurs, when the global adversaries to the United States can strike utilizing cyber arms and attacks deep to the most granular participle of our society – the individual citizen. Another question that is raising concern is the matter of time. Cyber attacks and conflicts can be executed at machine speed, which is beyond human ability to lead and comprehend what is actually happening. This visualizes that cyber as a field of study is in its early stages even if we have an astronomic growth of networked equipment, nodes, and the sheer volume of transferred information. We have massive activity on the Internet and in networks, but we are not fully able to utilize it or even structurally understand what is happening at a system-level and in a grander societal setting. I believe that it could take until the mid-2030s before many of the basic elements of cyber have become accepted, structured, and understood, and until we have a global framework. Therefore, it is important to be invested in cyber research and make discoveries now rather than face strategic surprise. Knowledge is weaponized in cyber.

Jan Kallberg, PhD

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